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Posts Tagged ‘Tolstoy’


Nicola Paget as Anna Karenina in the snow when she is still falling in love with Vronsky (1977 BBC AK)

Friends and readers,

Two summers ago our Trollope and his Contemporaries listserv on Yahoo (Trollope19thCstudies@yahoogroups.com) began nearly 6 months r reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace together, and a few of us watched just some of the many movies made. And to remember it, & make some of the conversations available to others, I blogged on all these. We thought it such a success and enjoyed it so that we repeated ourselves over Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina,starting this past Indian summer. We took less time, 4 months to be accurate; instead of some 1400 pages, we had a book of over 800. We posted less: perhaps the issues of adultery, erotic enthrallment, marital and sexual conflict, class disdain, are less comfortable subjects to exchange thoughts about than sequences of war and sequences about the society that supports this. Although the list of Anna Karenina movies is longer than than that of War and Peace movies, I watched fewer. None had the reputation the War and Peace movies had.

Yet the experience was comparable. I had listened to the book read aloud once before looking at the book as I went along and years ago tried to read it on my own. This with a group was the first time I really read the book slowly and truly. I finished both books with the same group of people convinced they are great literary masterpieces in the novel tradition, and yet have fundamental inescapable flaws: for War and Peace, Tolstoy wants to write history and persuade the reader experience human experience is providential (controlled by some divine purpose); in Anna Karenina he cannot get himself to enter into the full emotional range of motives or sexual experience of verboten adultery, and sees marital experience far more from the point of view of sexual satisfaction and practical money support than genuine mindful understanding and compatible interests.

Again it was the 1970s BBC version of the book that seemed to me the soundest, giving enough time for complexity: the 1977 AK written by Ken Taylor, directed by Donald Wilson, featuring Eric Porter, Nicola Paget, Stuart Wilson — Wilson gave us the 1967-68 Forsyte Saga; and Taylor, the 1987 Jewel in the Crown respectively — compared to the 1972 BBC War and Peace, a Jack Pulman product, featuring Anthony Hopkins, Morag Hood, Frank Middlemass (to name just three). Both books had also prompted comparable recent film adaptations which brought out the disquieting transgressions and marginalized people’s (women mostly) point of view, the 2015 War and Peace scripted Andrew Davies, featuring James Norton, Lily James, Brian Cox (limiting myself to 3), the 2012 Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright, scripted by Tom Stoppard (no less),featuring (as usual with Joe Wright, Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Matthew Macfayyen). Here is a list of all the AK films I know of for those interested.

The parallels between the character types in both books, and the contrasts of their ultimate fates are striking. Both books open with an astonishingly persuasive portrait of a central male, in W&P Pierre Bezukhok, a self-doubting socially awkward, yet brilliantly aware character of great integrity; in AK, Oblonsky, known as the contrasting Stiva, Anna’s insouciant socially skilfully comical conventional (unless you have to live with him), utterly amoral, a careless adulterer. Some of us loved the opening skating scene in AK between Tolstoy’s troubled man of integrity, Levin and the girl he eventually marries, Kitty (in type close to the W&P Natasha). The opening two chapters on the Scherbatsky family: this group is the equivalent of Natasha and Rostov family. Very early we see Vronsky will be an inadequate lover-companion for Anna’s need once she defies society to go and live apart with him, Karenin, her aging husband, originally deeply well-meaning, will be unable to flex in a modern amoral environment, and punish them all. Stiva’s long-suffering wife, Dolly who is counseled by Anna to stay with him, and consequently endures yet more wretched years until he finally cannot pay her way, is contrasted to Anna who chooses not to stay, and ends in a tragic obsessively self-destroying life and death.

The issues outside the book we talked of again that are textual include the insoluble problem of and access translations provide. It matters which other language you read the book in and which translation. I found for myself the Maude War and Peace captured the rich texture of the original War and Peace in English, yet a mid-century French translation by Elisabeth Guertik was yet better. For Anna Karenina, the simpler P&V was what was wanted to reach that interior life so crucial to AK, and I just didn’t have, didn’t have time for a French translation (much to my regret as this theme is Writ large in great originally French novels, e.g., Madame de Lafayette’s La Princess de Cleves). I found Tony Tanner’s Adultery in the Novel, which I hoped much from, a disappointment, and we dialogued over this (see comments).

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Eric Porter as Karenin when Anne is trying to tell him she loves Vronsky (1977 BBC AK)

Sex and Marriage

About half-way through Diane Reynolds wrote that she had been reading Joel Fassler’s collection of essays, Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process; Mary Gaitskill had written there of how she felt inspired by Anna’s deeply felt impulsive cry after coming near death in childbirth (from a pregnancy by Vronsky), and begging the returned Karenin to forgive her — that she has two selves, and her real self is the presence who pleaded with Karenin to return to him, while the self in love with Vronsky (we know loathes sex with her husband, Karenin) is “another woman in me, I’m afraid of her,” someone she “cannot forget, the one who is not me.” Stoppard picks up the importance of this scene and moment and has Keira Knightley as Anna say

“Oh, my dear [to Karenin] don’t look at me like that. I am not the one you think. I’m afraid of her, She fells in love with another man. I’m the real one. But I’m dying now, then she’ll be dead too. Poor man! [meaning Vronsky?] Let him come in. Alexis! Alexis!”

Now it’s not clear which Alexis as that is both their names. This might startle some readers were they to pay attention. Our modern predilection is to see the coerced self as the married women, not the fleeing one. Once Anna recovers in Wright/Stoppard’s film, she behaves like a hateful tigress to Jude Law as Karenin. In the 1977 BC AK Eric Porter captures the feel of a Karenin who wants to love and to forgive, to bring Anna’s daughter by Vronsky up as his own, but before the onslaught of society’s scorn for him, and her behavior, is puzzled, hurt, cold and finally subject to religious delusions invented by a woman who flatters and soothes him. All the Vronskys in the films I saw were true to the book as they tried to but could not be content with Anna. Tolstoy’s Vronsky needs social prestige, to be active and admired in the world, to be integrated as a landowner and his society will not permit this as long as he lives openly unmarried with Anna.

One reading is that Tolstoy thus indicts society for twisting the characters and/or refusing to understand and act with empathy. Another is Anna is turned into this another dark self as in Robert Louis Stevenson’s explanation for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: a doppelganger, a motif for expressing an atavistic self underneath our civilized selves, perhaps an amoral self whose appetites take over at night, or a sick self in reaction to the society that married a young innocent woman off to Karenin who has learned to dislike sexuality with him (this is not that far from Tolstoy in his Kreutzer’s Sonata. Yet Anna’s real self is that of a mother too; she misses her son truly; does not want a divorce if this means permanent separation from him. She does or can not understand that once she has left her husband, she will never have her boy back.

In the novel Anna’s frantic visit to her son once she and Vronsky return to Moscow: early in the morning, at dawn practically, laden with gifts, preceded by two scenes: the first of Seyozha with his Slav tutor, Vassily Lukich, and his especial friend, the hall porter, Kapitonych. He is presented as happy but nervous, proud of his father for winning awards for his gov’t work on behalf of the people of Russia; underneath is stress (he cannot bear the religious woman Lydia, whom he is sent to): he has not learnt the lesson, he cannot learn it, but no one presses him. The father comes, means to show affection, but is so cold and hard because the boy cannot produce the answers. We are told it’s not that he’s stupid or didn’t read the passages, they just mean nothing. He has been told his mother is dead and we are told also he refuses to believe it. Then Anna’s visit: disguised, how she is not let in at first, how the servant disobeys what he knows is wanted, and stands up for this because Anna never was unkind to him ever. In the end the child is confused, he is punished for not knowing his lesson; all the better he thinks, he can stay with his tutor, they build windmills. All he wants to do is forget her. The word love is used of all Anna’s feeling towards her son repeatedly; she says she is worthless (note that) and her husband a good man but when she encounters her husband fleeing his own house, all she feels are spite and hatred.

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Stuart Wilson as Ferdinand Lopez in Phineas Redux (1974 Pallisers, scripted Simon Raven): there is a closely similar shot of him as Vronsky (1977 BBC AK)


Frederick March played Vronsky in the 1935 AK with Greta Garbo as Anna (his is the strongest performance)

In reading the book, its story is so familiar and the types Tolstoy’s characters correspond to are superficially and functionally in the story part of commonplace moral lessons or protests so the reader is in danger of understanding what he or she is reading in stereotypical framed ways. It’s reading the details that bring out what makes it alive, thought- and feeling-provoking, original and effective. Vronsky as a character suffers a lot here: he is often underestimated, dismissed as a shallow cad, utterly egoistic; in some of the films he is treated this way too.

For example, after Vronsky and Anna’s first erotic encounter at the train station, Vronsky visits Stiva and when he learns Anna is there, he tries to flee. Yet he wanted to see her again intensely. The narrator says: “he raised his eyes, saw her, and something ashamed and frightened appeared in his expression;” then when Stiva tries “loudly” to usher Vronsky in, we are told his was a “soft, gentle and calm voicing … declining.” Anna blushes and thinks she understands why he came to Stiva’s and and then didn’t come in. But all she says is “he thought it was late.” At the dance it is Kitty’s jealous POV which thinks “Anna was drunk with the wine of rapture she inspired”. It’s not the admiration of the crowd, Kitty thinks, “but the rapture of one man. Each time he spoke with Anna, her eyes flashed with a joyful light and a smile of happiness curved her red lips.” Vronsky “wishes to fall down before” Anna, and “in his glance there was only obedience and fear.” His glance seems to say he wants “to save himself:” “There was an expression on his face that she had never seen before” There’s an “irrepressible tremulous light in [Anna’s] eyes and [her] smile burned him as she said it.” Then it’s the narrator and Anna who “feel themselves alone and this crowded ballroom.” Again from Kitty on Vronsky’s face “that expression of lostness and obedience that had so struck her, like the expression of an intelligent dog when it feels guilty”. Kitty finds “something alien and demonic” in Anna. Earlier Kitty had seen that Anna was “serious,” had a “sad expression” on her face; “in her some other higher world of interests, inaccessible to her, complex and poetic.” We should recall that Vronsky grieves in mortification when Anna loves Karenin during the childbirth, and shoots himself in the chest afterwards, does attempt to remain faithful to Anna until her crazed needy vulnerability hazes him ceaselessly for a peace of mind (“repos” in French) not in him to give himself, much less anyone else.

For several other nuanced close readings across the book see the Trollope and his Contemporaries archives.

After the lovers flee, Vronsky is intensely desirous to believe he and Anna will be accepted and to do all he can to promote this. He needs this. He tries his sister-in-law but she says she can’t visit them; the sleazy amoral Betsy comes stays briefly and offers a return visit at a specific time, Anna knows that means that Betsy will set up the evevning so that no one who matters will be there, and says, that is precisely the time she cannot come (this is kept in the 1977 BBC AK), and Betsy sends a note she is sorry she will not see Anna and Vronsky before they leave.

Key incidents in the Vronsky threads:

Before he and Anna consummate their love at the racrtrack. First, where Vronsky goes into the stable to look at his prize horse. It seems to me the mood of the felt detail makes an analogy with Anna, and the way Vronsky rouses, pets, and soothes the horse is analogous to the we are to imagine he rouses, pets and soothes Anna. Emphasis is laid elsewhere on how calm and gentle he can be and still convey physical strength. Calm down, calm down he says to the horse. Tolstoy enters into the consciousness of the horse without having to make thoughts for it: lean head, shining merry eyes, nose widening, flaring. The English jockey tells Vronsky too he must not be upset when he rides – and he does become upset because Karenin (I half remember) shows up and Anna must move to her husband’s place.

It’s a very subtle far more carefully version of what Trollope shows us in Burgo Fitzgerald vis-a-vis Lady Glencora Palliser. Trollope is coarses, not as subtle — Burgo will mistreat the horse, pressure it too much despite his fondness for it – -the fondness is seen as a distance as about what it’s worth (the money).

Most of the time I’m bored by Trollope’s scenes of racing horses, hunting, but not here. Tolstoy has filled the scene of Vronsky with his cronies and then at the races and especially close up to his horse, Frou-frou — what a name. It resonates sexually, trivializng femininity. Tolstoy seems to be able to come close into realities of the presences, man, horse, the interaction of people. I suggest we are to feel that Vronsky has last his “cool” because for the first time in his life he is truly emotionally engaged with someone (Anna) and this spills over into the rest of his life .He cares more if he wins or loses, or he cares differently. A deep relationship between the man and the animal is felt. Then when it lays there all quivering and he must kill it, have murdered this horse. I suggest the horse can stand in for Anna too. She is becoming herself nervous, losing her calm and I would say unjustly and unfairly hates her husband. But before we exculpate Vronsky into a man of sensibility, notice how he kicks the horse. I felt that as a shock. We are to bond with this poor creature driven to race for these selfish aristocrats.

From the talk we can gather that there was an anti-hunting, anti-racing group of people — this is a circus spectacle.

After they have run away, had the child, gone to live together in Italy, found it impossible there and in the country and return to Moscow:

The humiliating incident in the theater — dramatized (like the horse race where Vronsky loses, shoots his horse dead, and Anna exposes her attachment to all). Vronsky’s mother’s exultation. Vronsky’s military mates act to accept Anna and to support him but it’s not enough. He rushes back after her and they have this scene where he agrees they must leave immediately, it’s too painful and then is forced to say how much he loves her. But he is now intensely put off. He cannot stand her beauty. In the 1977 BBC film he is not alienated as yet, not hostile, and doesn’t become so until near the end. The word love is only used by the characters when it’s this frantic clinging emotion of Anna towards the first child which we are told was the result of her not loving its father, her husband; the baby girl she feels little for. Or when you no longer feel it as Vronsky doesn’t or are demanding it because you have lost your identity. But this is an anti-adultery reading. People living apart form society who have left partners can adjust, can feel love, do not crack so quickly and often it’s for other reasons than the adultery or separation (as in Tolstoy’s case).

Part of their misery is they are surrounded by hangers-on, phonies. The carelessly flirting male cousin Levin kicked out is here flirting with Anna — and note she doesn’t mind nor Vronsky. But he’s a mindless limpet. Princess Varvara – Stiva’s aunt — is there because she gets free meals and a place to live. She’s utterly phony another limpet. Then there’s the male counterpart to Betsy who we now know told Anna unless Anna is married she will not see her. These are people who simply hide their amoralities — like Vronsky’s mother. Anna bursts out about Betsy: “Au fond c’est la femme le plus deprave qui existe.” (Ruth Wilson enacts this to a T in the 2012 Wright/Stoppard film.)

Vronsky is trying for respect by building his hospital and going to meetings and begin a responsible landowner in the community. But it’s the social activity they share that somehow they fight over. We see it doesn’t satisfy him and the functionaries in the hospital are not good enough as guests. He wants the relationship legitimized, and his children legitimized. We feel he wants children. Anna must beg Karenin for a divorce: she finally bursts out she can’t stand the humiliation and thinks she would not get one. She also doesn’t want to give up her son. We see she is not able to love her daughter in these circumstances. She can’t indulge in “that inexhaustible intimate conversation” she says she longed for. She does say not an hour goes by but she doesn’t think of this divorce matter, doesn’t reproach herself. She then preys on Vronsky, asking him for what is not in him to give, full validation, companionship which looks nowhere else, and when he does not give it, she accuses him of not loving her, of betrayal and he breaks out in frustrated fury.

Stuart Wilson played the part in the 77 series and also Ferdinand Lopez in the film adaptation of The Pallisers — we are going to be watching that one all spring — whether 24 or 26 episodes, it’ll take us into summer. One can do that with films. Transfer one actor into another film or book: Wilson played a type that included Vronsky, Lopez (a hard mean man in the novel) and a cold predatory cad in The Raj Quartet who lures Sarah to go to bed with him, challenges her and when she’s pregnant her mother insists on an abortion. He was tall dark and handsome, very thin. A critic made fun of this type in Jeremy Irons: tall, thin and tortured is the way women viewers like this hero type. Is it still the fashion somewhere? or are characters made too hard?

In the aftermath to Anna’s suicide Tolstoy avoids Vronsky at first and sets it two months later: we only see him from the outside. Well the last shot of Wilson as Lopez show his face in a frozen horrified look, so dark and brooding are his eyes. I’ve not forgotten that moment in the mini-series: it’s the last shot of that episode. I now transfer the look of Wilson’s face to Vronsky in the novel by Tolstoy. In the film adaptation we never see Vronsky again after he drives off in his carriage. I thought they did that because they ran out of time and didn’t have enough for a 11th episode and hadn’t planned one. The look in his face could also be Anna’s look as the train comes hurtling at her.

I will talk of Eric Porter’s performance as Karenin in the 1977 BBC production and Jude Law in the 2012 film as in both cases these conceptions and actors went beyond even the brilliance of the book.

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Robert Swann as Levin and Caroline Langrishe as Kitty ice-skating (early joyous scene, 1977 BBC AK)

Some readers are led to find the Levin story superfluous (not connected to Anna) or not what they are reading for (no matter how dull utterly persuasive) as at the same time this story matter increasingly takes up much of the space of the novel. Levin is Tolstoy the way Pierre was Tolstoy; his ideal, again here when first met (and at the last) the nervous person who doesn’t fit in. When Levin returns to his home after his first attempt in the book to win Kitty, he is so relieved to be in a world he has created for himself. But this takes strength too — you must be satisfied by living in and on yourself, believe in your goals, which differ from others. When Levin first arrives, he thinks he can do it, but even with his housekeeper’s kindness and companionableness, the memories of the outside world are a continual leaking poison. For example he wanted Kitty and couldn’t have her, so he thinks another woman will do as well, but he soon gives that up. After his hard work on his farm, with his peasants, we get a paragraph about how “doubts, an eternal dissatisfaction with yourself, vain attempts to improve, and failures and an eternal expectation of happiness” elude him and make him have to strive to be at peace.

This is as important in life as eros. It’s how Levin differs from Vronsky in a deep way and why he’s a worthwhile human being. He has original depths, he has real feelings and thoughts; he need not in his behavior mirror society’s norms as he has examined them and found them wanting. I found Tolstoy’s depiction of the naturalness of the animals in this world of nature also such a relief. The calf that seeks its mother and wags its tale. I read this in context as showing (for Levin and me) how animals are superior to human beings with all their phony subtexts. I was startled but won over by how Tolstoy entered the consciousness of a dog.

The deeper truer point about Levin is not that he’s exemplary but struggling against other human beings who just don’t take anything seriously but their own appetites. So he can’t get his workers to work — even if he paid them more – -the way he would. He can’t get things done even if he does some of it because he needs the others to. In my life I’ve never been part of team really but can guess from very early projects in school with others how frustrating this is — why people appreciate those who will work. I’m impressed by how deeply into the sense of the realities of agricultural worlds Tolstoy gets — Hardy tries but does not reach this. The 2013 film adaptation Far from Madding Crowd tried to by showing us the actors/actresses in the fields close up working.

An opposition in the novel is those who feel deeply good humane emotions (Anna, her husband, Dolly, Kitty, Kitty’s father, Levin’s brother) someone with much self-thought (Agafa Mikhailovna) and the cold performative manipulative types (Vronsky, Stiva instinctively, Betsy): not everyone falls into these two types but close enough as a theme. His brother, Nikolai, is the vulnerable idealist whose ideals of equality do not extend to women; whether Tolstoy meant us to see they do not extend to people beneath his class whom he is in intimate contact with rather than women, his behavior shows that too. He’s in fact a frustrated domineer; yet unhappy because he does not know how to live out his communist ideals (the society leaves no room for him as some of us may have experienced it leaves no room for parts of us central to us that don’t fit in)

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Anna’s throwing herself under a train.


Vivian Leigh in the final sequence of the 1948 movie

Trains matter in the novel, are focused on — as well as the brilliant movie, The Last Stationby Jay Parini, with a good movie by Michael Hoffman I blogged about years ago.

It’s a long deeply eloquent pictorially realized sequence; the choice of words to capture her intensely depressed state of mind is to me perfect. There are many words about light and darkness. But mostly her mind goes over and over again the recent incidents that have led to Vronsky fleeing, and she backtracks to the whole situation they are in, and she has truthful accurate remarkable insights into how he feels about her, and why she is so tormented. I wrote too much at length in response to Light into Dark so I won’t go into these: we’ve covered them, e.g., he’s tired of her, resentful, angry at the situation; she keeps asking him for what he cannot give her, all his self and a whole reason to live. She is preying on him (she doesn’t put it this way).

Anna does not know what to do with herself. She asks her maid, what should she do? Vronsky will not come back to help her.

She feels her views are clinched when she visits Dolly for advice and comfort. Alas Kitty is there and immediately it’s clear Kitty does not want to see her as a stigmatized “wicked” women. Anna speaks plainly that she sees this so of course Dolly denies it, and Kitty comes out and we see Kitty immediately soften, be attracted to this still beautiful women, drop her jealousy and be kind. But it’s too late

Tolstoy captures the confusion of mind such a state encompasses and (to me most impressive) the kinds of bad thoughts that revolve through the mind. I’ve had psychiatrists ask me when I say I had bad thoughts all night, what kinds are these, could you tell me them and I can’t because it’s too embarrassing — they are like Anna’s and thus probably common as types: seeing everyone in the world as angry or unhappy or looking at you and despising you; interpreting everything as ugly, cruel, miserable, resolving to do things you know you can’t do or fix and you feel absurd and know you will be told this is skewed by someone’s else “rational” mind. One problem in the way Vivien Leigh enacted this one is she over-did, she was over-the-top neurotic and we had no over-voice to listen to her reasoning because it’s a form of reasoning that leads to a desire to escape the world. I now think Nicola Paget’s quiet enactment much closer. But what’s needed is voice-over, and quotation quite literal from the novel – this P&V translation is very good.

I suspect thus far every single movie has been too embarrassed, unwilling really to put this before us. Telling that Andrew Davies at any rare was willing to put before us a slow agonizing secular-like death. I wonder if he has the guts to put this death before us. The point that such a scene needs is suicide makes sense for Anna — as it made sense for Richardson’s Clarissa.

Anna’s suicide is so interior, so much an extended almost stream of conscious that it would be extremely difficult to convey what Anna is feeling. A voice over would have to be done very carefully and directly from Tolstoy in order not to drown the scene in bathos. A series of images flashing or firing through her mind as she heads toward the scene and perhaps slo mo flings herself in front of the train could work. Especially if we have seen them before, if they replayed distorted to be uglier, meaner, more nightmarish we would understand that, though not if it were overdone in any way. This is a place where the genres don’t mesh easily.

It’s a hard scene to film and all the movies struggle with it. In this case I thought the most successful the 1948 film directed by Julian Duvivier, scripted by him and Jean Anouilh with Vivian Leigh as Anna, Ralph Richardson as Karenin. Leigh was superb at enacting the neurotic (the heroine for A Streetcar named Desire, for The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone). There is a consciousness so deeply gone into when Tolstoy takes the plunge, we are persuaded we are experiencing life. In Phineas Redux where Wilson in the film as Ferdinand Lopez throws himself under a train, we similarly have a long extended stream of consciousness, about Lopez’s shame (he is killing himself like other males in Trollope who does this because they have lost their place in the world after being publicly humiliated — far worse than Mr Slope); Trollope’s novel gives us an astonishing paragraph of metaphor about being smashed to smithereens. Tolstoy stays longer and more resolutely still the character’s mind, until she realizes she doesn’t want to do but it’s too late to pull back. In Trollope’s Nina Balatka, the heroine is about to jump the Charles Bridge into the river and is pulled back by the arm by a friend (a Jewish Rebecca character), but she was hesitating and slightly moving into the “wait a minute” mode, but there was no train on top of her going at high speed.
All comparable achievements.

Film-makers hesitate at the voice-over; maybe they fear audiences will be put off by the emotionalism. It’s said by film critics it’s thought of as feminine, as too intellectual for the average movie-goer, but I love it. I think it makes the Outlander series far better and deeper because it is used so often (and the words taken literally from the book). I’ve been watching Bergman this week; he uses it all the time in his and often Woody Allen (who was much influenced) does it too. It would jar with the sudden train so there’s a media conflict.

Then the fiction switches to Levin until the end of the book …

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Tolstoy in his study (1891, Ilya Repin)

Which story was the afterthought? According to A.N. Wilson, Tolstoy began the book when he had experienced a prolonged period of depression, and been told the real life story of the mistress of a man who lived nearby and who had thrown herself under a train when he tired of her. Tolstoy poured his depression into Anna; Levin came as a relief. But together, they create a thickly felt set of realities, specially criss-crossed by Anna’s brother, Stiva, and his relationship to Levin’s wife’s sister, Dolly.

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Matthew MacFadyen stars as Oblonsky in director Joe Wright’s bold, theatrical new vision of the epic story of love, Anna Karenina, a Focus Features release. Credit: Laurie Sparham

Anna and Levin, heroine and hero; Dolly and Stiva, contrasts: another angle

Both Anne and Levin are characters of integrity, sensibility, who cannot quite fit in. Levin is given far more slack; Anna easily ends up outside this realm of safety and acceptance. Much of the later part of the novel is given over to the Levin group partly perhaps because Tolstoy cannot get inside Anna and Vronsky in the same way — he cannot believe that they are living in similar nuanced conditions. Everything must be overshadowed by their adulterous relationship, but in fact that didn’t have to be. Levin is overwhelmed by “frivolous” people and wishes he could escape. He is not presented as alienated as he might be — finally again Tolstoy is wholesome. To them of course this that they are expending their lives on is not frivolous; the trivia of existence – water in jam, picking mushrooms is what matters or how they live.

Stiva comes to visit Levin many times and Levin overjoyed because Stiva will sit and listen to him. He has so much to say in himself he’s no one to say it all to. I feel for him — again like Pierre in W&P, socially naive, but not putting himself out for others, working for himself whose proceeds he puts back into the land. Ironically Stiva is not really pleasant, it’s that he’s indifferent to all but himself. When Levin tries to elicit a response, Stiva’s half-listening because he wants to produce a speech on “political economy” (conservative laissez-faire politics for the sake of impressing others) not the rural experience Levin is describing. Levin exposes his concern for Kitty– for himself and Stiva’s off-hand discreet comment about how interesting “Ossianic women — women of dreams are” is him musing over the women he has affairs with. How cold his heart to others – -this warm man. Tolstoy conveys this and I remember the deep feeling Dolly.

The two plot-designs are drenched in deep sex, one about fucking (Anna, Vronsky, Karenin) and other about a woman’s body producing a child (Levin, Kitty, her family). We do know that these things don’t have to be on everyone’s mind. I thought too Levin’s memory of his brother’s death and his seeming lack of memory of his difference from this older brother worth noting.


Kelly MacDonald as Dolly (2012 Joe Wright AK)

Dolly, Oblonsky’s wife, Kitty’s sister. Dolly goes for a visit to Anna and Vronsky: of course it’s her POV, but she is deeply sympathetic even and has every reason (as her thoughts tell her for 3 hours on the way there) to reprehend everything about the way marriage is practiced in her society and wish she had done what Anna stopped her from doing: while she was still young enough, a couple of pregnancies before, she should have left Stiva she thinks, tried to divorce or separate herself. Then she might have had a chance to find someone who would truly love, care, protect her – – the way Levin is doing for Kitty. She has utterly unspeakable thoughts about motherhood. What does she get for it? a worn body “Nothing but trouble. No work, no nothing. Just bondage.” She resists this thought by saying to herself she can’t live without them now but they suck the life out of her. One of the most interesting moments in the text is silence — Anna reveals to Dolly something that is so shocking Tolstoy gives us ellipses. I surmised it’s some form of contraception physically; they use anal intercourse or some form of ejaculation where she’s not inseminated by him. Dolly is horrified but remembers other couples with just two children.

Why horrified? If she would suggest this to Stiva, he might go along? or would it interfere with his pleasures. The BBC 1977-78 does try to dramatize this hard material including Anna’s choosing not to have a child and Vronsky’s hard resentful response to this to Anna’s face. This is not in the book, for it seems Tolstoy cannot get himself to question endless pregnancies inflicted on women even if he sees how motherhood is such an ambivalent and sometimes destructive experience for women.

We move very slowly through all this experience, many many pages devoted to slowly seeing Vronsky and him finally opening to Dolly and ditto for Anna, and how at the end Dolly wants to escape and quickly. Vronsky is as good a manager as Levin or Karenin and good thing (though we wonder where he gets the money from — the house is an old family house-heirloom) for they are emotionally miserable at the gut level. Lovely envious surroundings do help is the moral here, but are not enough. Basically they are not enough for one another, and neither has some inner goal or vocation to make up for the loss of society. I would like to suggest there are such people since I think Jim and I were all-in-all but I have to admit in the same breathe we were married and lived conventionally enough to him to maintain a full time job in the fed gov’t of some responsibility.

********************


Ralph Richardson as Karenin, one of the politicking scenes (1948 AK)

Politics, religion, art. There’s a lot more here than is ever discussed: Levin, Karenin and Vronsky all go to political meetings, and in all these Tolstoy dramatizes what he sees as the uselessness of what happens from the point of view of doing any good for society as a whole. Karenin is outwitted by a conniving man who deludes Karenin’s people into accepting an exaggerated version of doing good and then that is rejected as unrealistic; Levin cannot interact well at all (his brother can but is only interested in issues abstractly), he cannot even figure out what is going on it’s all so implicit, nuanced, morally reprobate at core; Vronsky is a personal success in the same meeting and ends inviting the vicious man who behind the scenes manipulated factions to win the high powerful place to a dinner Vronsky pays for. Tolstoy more than once blames the victims who are subdued for allowing themselves to be subdued. In one-on-one vignettes: Karenin with the lawyer; Karenin and the religious fanatic lonely woman, Lydia, with the religious charlatan; in group scenes of trying to get people to change their ways to be more productive for themselves and work less hard, Levin fails; Stiva has the greatest political successes in what he tries to do (win money and position for himself). the extraordinary protracted death scene of Levin’s brother where instead of validating a religious point of view (as in Andrei’s death in W&P) it is wholly a biological process.

There are also brilliant chapters on art — the way there are in War and Peace. Vronsky is imitating being a great painter and Tolstoy tries to explain why: he has nothing to communicate deeply through his art, no emotion he cares about. Anna understands art in ways that Vronsky can’t even if she can’t be a writer for in writing she has nothing she wants to do for real — acting for the social benefit of others or for something to do or prestige produces schlock.

Much of this is omitted in all but the 1948 and 1977 films — where the actors playing Karenin are so strong the film-makers kept some of this material. It is important; it is the deep background to Anna’s stranded tragedy as an outcast. It takes chapters after Anna’s suicide where we are with characters who are minor and care nothing for our major presences. When we finally hear from someone who supposedly cares it’s Vronsky’s vicious mother. Anna is a bad vile woman she says; why? because she acted out of the sincerity of her heart — and yes body. When last heard of Vronsky is taking a job to where slavs are suffering very badly. This will get him back into the military. Although his behavior has been enough to allow people never to appoint him again, since this is a job no one wants, he gets it. Will he do any good for these ethnic minorities. We are supposed to remember that Karenin’s important rules and laws to put in place have been defeated.

So the last chapters are about Levin and how he is coping with the idea he has that the world is meaningless — there is no God in this world. This time Tolstoy will not nag us for chapters on end to accept his providential ideas about history but instead presents Levin as wrong, not seeing deeply enough while Kitty his wife so unintellectual does. Levin has learned how difficult it is to reform anyone and loses himself in coping everyday with the selfishness of everyone else and their problems. We are told Dolly and her children are now his province. Levin considers suicide when he starts to think about life and read his philosophy so this matches what happened to Anna, but unlike her he is embedded in his society as a landowner, husband, father, brother-in-law,in doing a little good, so he has little time to think about suicide much less do it. Very like Pierre at the close of W&P proper (not the coda where we hear of his gross political mistakes years later which end him in Siberia for years, the idea Tolstoy had about Pierre as he started W&P).

And so the second long masterpiece ends. Tolstoy did not write a third.

Ellen

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The Studio, Vanessa Bell’s Charleston Farmhouse, Sussex

Dear friends and readers,

I know I told of how on one of my listservs, we are reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a group with each of us reading different other related works or watching films; on the other, WWta (Women Writers through the Ages @ Yahoo) we’ve started a similar project (far few people alas) around Virginia Woolf. Our central focus is a slow read through another massive volume: Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf, and have talked at length about the art of biography, Woolf’s own life writings and writing about biography (her Memoirs of a Novelist, her “Sketch of the Past” in Moments of Being). One of us read To the Lighthouse; we’ve discussed Gaston Bachelard’s perhaps now-dated Poetics of Space; I’ve watched the remarkably complex )(novel-like? biography-like) Carrington and am now determined to make Dora Carrington my next woman artist in that blog series.

First impression:

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From Christopher Hampton’s Carrington: this is based on an actual photo of the house (Emma Thompson who is made to look like Carrington as Jonathan Pryce looks like Strachey in the photos of him)

Strachey asked Woolf to marry him at one point; they were close. Strachey was much older than Carrington and I was thinking about the extraordinary convoluted tortured sexual and marital relationships in this wider group. Leonard and Virginia look conventional from the outside, but look in and you see her several deep lesbian relationships.

Jonathan Pryce who was such a wonderful Wolsey, is perfect for Strachey, and Emma Thompson takes on her stout boyish persona to play Carrington. I’ve only got half-way through: it’s a very long movie. What I wanted to say is that in a way it’s lacking:  Hampton wrote and directed it, and he is following Holroyd’s book and therein is the problem. Carrington is such a painful spectacle. The whole menagerie at her and Lytton’s home are wholly outside the mainstream. She loved Strachey because his homosexuality took the form of no sexual intercourse with a woman, so he was not aggressive at all. For someone who wants safety I am now puzzled (not rereading Holroyd) why she ever went to Mark Gertler (played by the then spectacularly handsome Rufus Sewell) who demanded rough sex as central to the relationship (not painful but agressive) and Sewell plays him as a man driven wild by her. The audience is allowed to see this clearly and Gertler’s attack on Lytton when it becomes obvious Carrington loves Lytton. But to keep Lytton she had to allow this reactionary hulk, Reginald Patridge (renamed Rafe by Strachey) to live with them and to keep him she had to have sex with him; in turn he’d have sex with Strachey.  This is not shown clearly in the film. Gerald Brennan (the young excellent actor Samuel West) who left for Spain and wrote two wonderful travel-memoirs of his life in Spain is brought in; but as I’ve not read Holroyd in a while I forget the bargain, but think Carrington was also required to have sex with Brennan to please someone.

Thompson says over and over this is an abject love. Hampton together with these remarkable actors conveyed something different than I’ve read before. Hitherto it was see how abject this woman was, what a mystery but it was Lytton’s kindness, gentleness and their shared love of art that made her invest her very life in his life.

This film shows him a cool egoist who uses her; he may not admit it to himself but he does. All the sex scenes after Mark are her degenerating, allowing her body to be used by man after man to get them for Strachey. That is what the film shows. She goes so far even to marry Partridge who in the film she sees as a macho male reactionary horror though fun as a man to dance with, handsome to draw. She endures his ugly jealousy and infidelities. She leads Gerald Brennan to lie in ways that violate his character — all for this Lytton. It gets to the point she wants to validate her body and gets involved with a man (Jeremy Northam turns up to do it) who just takes her cruelly for sex, getting pregnant by him she gets an abortion. Thee’s a dialogue where Lytton says why not have the baby.I think the film suggests had she, she might have had something else to live for. But she only wants his baby and he never fucks her it seems.

Pryce plays Strachey as realizing how he is using her, but being unable to resist it and enjoying her company, now and again guilty — as when he will advise her to leave off a man, or have a baby, or makes his will to leave her a pension. A very young Alex Kingston as Patridge’s partner after he tires of Carrington plus Strachey. A younger Penelope Wilton does Ottoline so well. The men in the film do seem attached to Carrington and enduring Strachey for the sake of Carrington except the stud last played by Northam. Thompson and Pryce impeccably involving. I grieved over Carrington’s death yet understood. It ends with a series of images of those of her paintings she did not destroy.

It’s a deeply searing portrait of a on the surface beautiful love but just below deeply destructive of her. We are told nothing of her family or childhood. She turns up sui generis and all film long she is without any group but this Bloomsbury one attached to Strachey and her art school. She goes off to London where she finds characters like Patridge and brings him back as a trophy or fodder for Lytton. Was she promiscuous in London somewhere. Patridge’s questioning of her in fact is understandable.

I want to read the screenplay, watch again and have now bought a book (natch) recent, Gerzina’s Carrington (who wrote on FrancesHodgson Burnett if I’m not mistaken).

As a result of the debate on the art of biography and novels (peel them off and you have an autobiography), we debated (a bit) Tim Parks’s iconoclastic theses about novel writing and reading in yet another thinking book from him, The Novel: A Survival Skill on both listservs.

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Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Kutusov after defying everyone and ordering a retreat so as to save as many men and as much of Moscow as he can (1966)

Let me say upfront there is no woman author in Parks’s universe in this book who counts, who he discusses at length. He might mention a woman now and again. He focuses on five males and when he has any examples they are all males. He has a history of Italian literature organized by great authors. Apparently in Italy since the Renaissance there has been but one woman writer of note. Something like 25 authors, one is a woman.

I wonder what women do with themselves when I read Parks. It’s important to the man’s outlook, tells us what he reads, how he reads. So by no means is he a guru when he leaves out half the human race; women do write differently, they make art differently — from social life and from innate elements.

Parks’s idea that novels threaten us has some powerful explanatory force; this is why people talk (and perhaps) think consciously about novels so moralistically. They inveigh against characters who do not obey social norms because they don’t want to articulate why those who don’t don’t, nor admit to identification. He follows this up with the iconoclastic idea we love books which are substitutes for the presence and sense of real person they contain, stand for. This a complete refutation of the “biographical fallacy.” Kraggsby says she becomes so emotional when she has to write or feel about Woolf after a bout with a book. This helps explain that. I so agree with it.

With Parks I really feel a mind thinking, not just putting together the platitudes and nouns referring to theoretical positions which the author then aligns him or herself with. He offers this possible description of what’s meant by creativity: “the ability to produce …. The emotional tone and the play of forces in whch the narrator lives, the particular mental world in which he moves …. “ Parks doesn’t need to have Coetzee in front of him, in fact the Coetzee we meet (as Proust would say) is the partial social man, not the man who counts. The greatness of such works, the triumph “we find their work drenched with their personalities, supreme expressionof theirmanner and character and behavior, each absolutely recognizable, triumphantly unmistakable … He does cite Woolf a little way down; her understanding is just so to the point, and what she does. Paradoxically l’ecriture-femme (women’s texts) exemplify much more centrally than men’s what he begins with.

When you say that a novel threatens the reader, and that therefore we need to learn actually how to survive them (really taken into consciousness what they can show) and that the author’s identity (I’ll call it) is everywhere there in different ways, you are set on a very different road than most books on the novel. I just love how he does not repeat cant and situate himself next to it or with it — not that a great books don’t do this: Jerome de Troot’s two books on historical fiction do it, but he examines these theories often to show their fallacies, not always.

Tim Parks is consistent with his view that the great writer conveys an authentic specific self across his or her work, asks about the writer’s tension when he or she thinks of who is reading this text. Parks says the novel is “officially addressed to everyone,but in reality they are not thinking of today’s Ph D student in say Korea addressing scholarly conversations in 2016; the actual circumstances the writer writes in frames his or her perception of what is being written; relatives do often complain and are hurt, as well as friends; t often he or she is thinking of some subgroup of readers alive at the time, “the implicit reader”. He proposes we think of ourselves as overhearing the author’s address to his or her audience at the time. Park then goes over specific details in a Becket text and they come so much more alive when you nail who specific savage ironies are aimed at. Lee quotes Woolf’s life-writing a lot and Woolf assumes her readership knows what the life of the upper class at the time was; her tales of childhood assume familiarity.

Parks says it is not a retreat from the text to be interested in the author’s patterns of behavior, relationships at the time of a text writtten, but rather it can increase our engagement. He then goes on to Gregory Bateson who argues that personality differentation ,how we establish our identities to ourselves are in relation to others aroud us which often are binaries and are reactions against. he is not talking about one-on-one equivalencies but a general presence surrounded by particulars then transposed but often more transparently than we like to allow.

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Helen Mirren as Sonya in Jay Parini’s The Last Station (which is part of our Tolstoy matter)

Now to apply Parks’s thesis to The Last Station, for example, you have to know about Hoffman and his life and relationship to the film (which he does bring in in the feature to the film, also Parini, not to forget Tolstoy, Cherthov, the various actors who inhabit the roles.

It is a complex film and now I’ve got to find time to read the book. A good performance can make a character come alive: In the screenplay Hoffman worked to condense, make a coherent POV (Valentine, the most invented of the characters) and in general sort of gave more meaning to what’s in the book and made me wonder if a movie because of its form often does simplify. It’s hard to fight it as successful as Bergman did. He didn’t care if his films made money when he started out. I thought I’d mention that the train was to be much much more important: it was to open with Valentine on the train; the deleted scenes are of Tolstoy fleeing on the train, Sofya following. It now only ends with the train. Hoffman says he wanted it to be a symbol but as he proceeded he decided the characters and their relationships were what he should spend time on. More practically I have watched enough honest features to have heard directors say you have to cut and you have to choose, and many he saw this skein or thread one he could eliminate neatly — to make the movie marketable. This was to be an allusion to Anna Karenina, with Sofya as our Anna who survives. I suspect so.

Also from our Tolstoy group: I am finding A. N. Wilson’s biography on Tolstoy without bothering to argue this in effect bases his biography and assessment of Tolstoy’s novels on a perspective like Parks; Lee is more reticent but then we’ve hardly gotten Virginia born. Wilson thinks Tolstoy is addressing other Russian writers, how he conceives of the cultural and political situation in Russia, but deeply by the time of Anna Karenina moved inward and dealing with his own many layered psyche through her.

Lastly (since I’m going away for a week — to Cornwall, where Woolf spent summer holidays for years on end — and have little time) I thought I’d just briefly call attention to an excellent review essay in TLS by Francesca Wade on the rebuilding of all sorts of house space the various Bloomsbury people had in different sites and museusm: “Interior Designs, Interior Desires: examing the inside of Bloomsbury homes as a guide to their owners’ artistry and personality.”

Wade begins with Bachelard and then goes on to show how the Bloomsbury group utterly defied conventions not just in painting happy pictures of what they were doing on their walls, and but in scattering all the things they used over a day freely around the house, making rooms serve real and different functions peculiar to the people living there all at once. In the movie Carrington we see the house Strachey (Jonathan Pryce) and Carrington (Emma Thompson) live in have her paintings on the wall, and a couple of the rooms are clearly shown to be reflective of how they live. Outsiders thought the decorations were lascivious or salacious because of the unconventional sexual relationships people who came and lived there had, but not at all. Nudes were not sexy nudes — as in the film. They were gay (old use of word), defying the colors, atmosphere of the homes these people had been brought up in.

Most houses today and apartments too are set up in conventional ways with several rooms sometimes given over “to making a show.” More time and energy making the room a symbol of the expected social life and status than the comfort of people living in it. The purpose of the US family room is to have a place where people can do their own thing but even there I’ve seen status and money the criteria for decorations — how many Xs you did of this or that.

Jim and my house was and today mine alone with his presence as memory and filling the objects is not like that. There is no room for show, the rooms have — or had (he’s gone now) several functions. I have been told if I wanted to sell it and/or sell it for a high priceI would have to empty it out and make it a soulless display. So that’s what the average person wants: plus and a soulless display. No thank you I said. Either it’s sold the way it looks or not sold. So Bloomsbury space is still iconoclastic.

Ellen off for a week on holiday in Cornwall

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Charles Camoin, Cat before the Open Window — from Sixtine, one of the lights of my existence

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Afterwards

Oh, my beloved, shall you and I
Ever be young again, be young again?
The people that were resigned said to me
—Peace will come and you will lie
Under the larches up in Sheer,
Sleeping,
And eating strawberries and cream and cakes—
O cakes, O cakes, O cakes, from Fuller’s!
And, quite forgetting there’s a train to town,
Plotting in an afternoon the new curves for the world.

And peace came. And lying in Sheer
I look round at the corpses of the larches
Whom they slew to make pit-props
For mining the coal for the great armies.
And think, a pit-prop cannot move in the wind,
Nor have red manes hanging in spring from its branches,
And sap making the warm air sweet.
Though you planted it out on the hill again it would be dead.
And if these years have made you into a pit-prop,
To carry the twisting galleries of the world’s reconstruction
(Where you may thank God, I suppose
That they set you the sole stay of a nasty corner)
What use is it to you? What use
To have your body lying here
In Sheer, underneath the larches?
Margaret Postgate Cole (1893-1980)

Defusingfirstbomb

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From the first episode: Ashe (Anthony Andrews) goes down into the pit to defuse a bomb for the first time, the men wait up on the ground; we see Sergeant James (important character, Maurice Roeves) LCorporal Salt (Kenneth Cranham) and Corporal Horrocks (Ken Kitson)

Friends and readers,

I thought at this moment — after the bombing of the Brussels airport and central train station, considering what might happen short- and long-term as a result, the turn to the extreme right in South America (Brazil, Argentina) — that it might be appropriate to write about serious anti-war films, of which the 1979 Danger UXB is a mini-series you should not miss. It seems so a propos.

The stories are about a bomb disposal unit in World War Two, where about one-third of the characters we become involved with are blown up in their efforts to defuse bombs planted all over England (it seems) during World War Two. I cannot speak too highly of it — it’s the quietude and lack of melodrama with which it’s done too. One earlier episode called Butterfly Winter is about how Germans littered towns with hundreds of small bombs — how do you cope with these. How find 254 bombs in an area? One man does die when he goes out by himself too quickly, too humane; he should have waited for another member of the team to help. We just see the sudden explosions from slightly afar each time, or as they would have been seen by survivors. Then the unit commander, Brian Ashe (Anthony Andrews in one of the superior roles he enacted) is told, they rush to the spot and identify what’s left of the body. A moving scene in a church not overdone for once brought tears to my eyes.

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LCorporal Salt (Kenneth Cranham) listening to his distraught wife after he insists they must leave where they are, which she has made a sort of life for herself in (Digging Out)

Digging out is another I’ll single out (the 9th). It’s semi-famous, written by Paul Wheeler, who wrote episodes 5-8 of the 1975 Poldark series. Here we follow one of the non-officers in a unit whose wife and children live in an area of England just then being bombed heavily by the Germans. He wants leave to go to his wife to persuade her to move which move she is resisting. During the course of the hour he becomes drunk in oe of these corroded awful bathrooms I recognize from Leeds in the later 1960s — the harsh realities of every day life in England are really presented in this series. He comes across a girl caught in a collapse of a building near a bomb and risks his life and that of his mates (against orders) saving her: they are as non-officers and non-trained people not supposed to cope with bombs. He is crushed by what happens in both cases, and then punished for disobeying orders — which our hero, Anthony Andrews, head of the unit tries to mitigate.

I watched, riveted to my chair each time. I’ve found myself beginning to worry with intense anxiety over Brian Ashe, whom I’ve gradually invested so much concern for. The 8th episode they and he alone — are trying to defuse a new kind of trickier bomb — each time the Nazis make them harder to defuse. This time they must freeze the mechanism. Use liquid nitrogen. The focus in the episodes is repeatedly on working the technology right and its trickiness; instead of brute heroism, we have people coming up with solutions by technology but it’s very ambiguous this heroism. Once the men save a young woman pinned down by a bomb and the only way they can think to save her is pull the bomb up by chains, swing it over her onto a wagon and then rush like crazy with the wagon to the sea and heave it high. The bomb explodes mightily in the water. They were dangering their lives and those of anyone in the factory. The heroine (Judy Geeson plays the part — she is to me drippy, just grates with her upper class mannerisms but she is supposed to be upper class) has a husband who works at Bletchley and he has a nervous breakdown and kills himself. Sometimes the new fangled tech stuff kills psychologically; it demands an attitude of mind unnatural to people.

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The group rushes to take Ashe to the hospital (The Pier)

The final episode shows what happens to Brian Ashe as his body recovers from a blast that hits him in episode 12: I know I’ve said I’m one who doesn’t care if someone tells me the ending of whatever the novel or story is — except in some peculiar cases. Well I am that different from others that yesterday I found I couldn’t watch until I finally went over to wikipedia and ascertained that Ashe, my favorite character, did not die at the close of 8, merely very badly wounded ….

In our last hour, he is deeply depressed is the way people would put it, distressed is the word I’d use, angered at the deaths and destruction he’s seen, feeling the futility and failure of what he’s done, blaming himself, also simply in a lot of pain. The problem with series comes out in how he seems to overcome this: he wants to return to bomb disposal, and he’s not up to it. He does manage this with great pain, and the others let him risk his life to do this. They chose a bomb where only one person is needed. Two men offer to be next to him but he won’t let them — against the rules. So he is risking just his life. The problem is the show can’t help but endorse heroism and war at long last by doing this. Also the norm of the “stiff upper lip:” he apologizes to others too often.

We have a conventional toned down marriage where another set of mainstream values is endorsed. Class. The men are all enjoying themselves with working class women in jolly ways that the officers seem not to join in on; no they go off and have an elegant dinner.

It’s a kind of little upstairs (officers) and downstairs (men), with our Sergeant James just looking on at the men. He is the person who got Ashe to return, a liaison individual who belongs no where. Too serious for these working people and not elegant enough for dining. I suppose it reflects a reality but this reality while consciously shown is endorsed.

The quiet, lack of exaggeration and deep impulse to show what the experience of war is, how terrible fills each hour. I find myself having to stand by the door of a room while watching it so I can run away if anyone who I’ve grown attached to is killed — or anyone at all really. Each episode ends so quietly too, no cliff hangers. Just about every show has an important death, and often accompanied by anti-climactic behavior on the part of the people biologically, familially or by where they lived attached to the dead person, sort of flat. The men in the unit are quietly deeply disturbed but move on. Nothing melodramatic so you almost overlook it as sometimes it does not occur at the hour’s every end. It’s brought home to me how bombs are so horrifying, how they are still used — cluster bombs nowadays are used. Bombs laced with poison gas. Think of these drones. No trial to prove someone guilty of anything; a whole group of people hideously hurt, killed, their lives and futures wiped out.

Danger UXB is a work of real integrity. Writers included Jack Pulman (again), Alan Plater, other familiar names from the 1970s I recognized. It is very much told from a man’s point of view. Judy Geeson (Caroline Penvennen in Poldark) is susan, the one repeating woman character and like the others docilely domestic — almost. She has an affair with Andrews thought she’s married to a man working at Bletchley. So here too it breaks taboos: good heroines were not supposed to have affairs like this — without great trauma.

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Susan (Geeson) looking out the window — there are many such quiet stills

It’s usually talked about as having no women. That’s not so; they are not central but they are there, I’d say almost very mainstream values for women are in place. They are shown to have sex themselves and enjoy sex; they drink; our chief heroine is an adulteress. Our heroine is also ever so obedient to Daddy who is this “generous man” but of course knows she should go back to her husband and if he had not had a breakdown (from Bletchley stress) and died, she’d not have been able to become Ashe’s partner/wife at the last. So the sexuality of the programs are not presented to liberate women so much as something that pleases male viewers because of the way it’s presented. They are finally docile sidekicks. The final episode has the girl who early on presented as a manipulative tramp getting involved with Ashe’s batman, and finally pregnant and Brian Ashe’s batman marries her. Ashe has told him he need not, how does he know her baby is his? So no it’s not at all feminist. Women are seen from the outside as men see them.

The overarching struggle of the series is the education, and disillusionment and moral strengthening of Brian Ashe as he learns to be a good commander: he learns about himself and finally has this moral triumph; each episode is show the unit overcomes some technical difficulty — or not. Now Susan the one major character is a woman who does not have a lineal story of triumph; she moves from her father’s daughter, to adulteress deeply in love, back to wife to nurse her husband who kills himself anyway, and then onto becoming Brian’s fiancee; from man to man. She works behind the scenes effectively to help Brian by enlisting her father’s patronage network in the same repeated ways; at the end she’s where she was at the beginning but her emotional and moral life is so much more satisfying. Like Ashe’s batman, Salt (after the death of his wife from a bombing) becomes involved with less respectable woman, a music hall entertainer who we later meet as a prostitute; she is doing the same job for higher fees is her view. He cannot accept that and maybe he’s right. She is living a hollow life. We glimpse women suddenly made widows. Brian’s aunt is a longtime widow who apparently lives a quiet upper class gentry life where she has time to make herself available to Brian as caring stable surrogate mother.

Machinery

The mini-series’ central focus is technology: danger clever deadly device here. Instead of brute heroism, we have people coming up with solutions by technology but it’s very ambiguous this heroism. Judy Geeson’s husband who works at Bletchley has a nervous breakdown and kills himself. Sometimes the new fangled tech stuff kills too. What makes Ashe a hero is he can do technology well. Some intuition usually bettered this kind of theme: he leaves engineering school before he can get his degree so in the last program he cannot be promoted to a job higher than he had to keep him in bomb disposal. He doesn’t have the certificate. In fact he had not been at Oxford or Cambridge but was in the Technical Modern school (or whatever they used to call them). It showed up how injustice happens over these certificates and kinds of schools available to people. The paratexts opening and closing each episode show us the noise and strength of the machinery building bombs, firing them, sending them off to be used. The mini-series shows us how frail people are as they used this iron, steel and their electrical killing devices.

Some mini-series have not been re-booted; I suggest perhaps one sign of real superiority is the sense that you cannot reboot. This one cannot be re-booted; it’s not just that sensationalism has invaded and pervades the BBC nowadays but the whole mindset of integrity and true anti-war presentation (somehow not glorifying war at al and yet respectful of those risking their lives, fighting, the civilians.

A comparable work from the later 1980s shows up some flaws in Danger UXB. A Piece of Cake, like Danger UXB, has been admired as an unusual anti-war war film. It was done in the later 1980s and I’ve begun watching it. Only 6 parts it still merits discussion on the level of Danger UXB — or the recent (hardly seen at all, it disappeared in the US so quickly) Kilo Two Bravo. A Piece of Cake is about a flight squadron in WW2. It falls off towards the end, suddenly the incidents become shorter and the themes are not focused. A couple of romances start up where women are hardly distinguished from one another. (They have no coherent story.) It’s as the movie did not have the courage to paint as dark a picture of the human sides of the reality of group combat as it seemed to be moving towards.

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A Piece of Cake surprised me in two ways: first it’s ironic; the characters are presented as these admirable upper class males but as you watch you realize a couple are real shits, the commanding officer who seems so knowing and elegant and competent is a fool who thinks of war as an excuse for adventure and living in French castles where there is luxury and servants. It is unusual for a film to be ironic: to expect us to realize how inadequate awful &c characters are. One I can think of is the 1972 Emma. Its center is an unhandsome intelligence office, the actor who played Hooper (Thomas Hope) in Brideshead Revisited and is now Dr Pascoe in the new Poldark.

There is a technology theme here too: the captain at first insists on following heroic kinds of group behaviors that are not longer applicable and threaten everyone’s lives. The group must fight individually. He loses a number of men to his stubbornness. He wants to control them and be Top Male. Then the use of the technology of the airplane endangers them. There is zenophobia against their allies the French who we see them with. Again and again their own blindnesses, mores (which are after all why they are fighting), make it difficult for them to use the new technologies the way intended.

Piece of Cake shows up Danger UXB in two ways. First A Piece of Cake brought home to me how improbably nice and kind are most of the men in Danger UXB (one episode is about a shit commander, petty, enjoys tormenting the men with the “rules,” but he is outed quickly because all conspire together to get rid of him), how well meaning, how respectful between classes. In Piece of Cake they are more real — nasty some of them, use class to put down the men below, corrosive. In Danger UXB the survivors are technically very good (not physically brave or heroic necessarily at all, not conventionally), but in Piece of Cake you also have to have the kind of personality that survives corrosive competition, put downs; you must not be the person in the playground recognized to have coolies — and the second person to die was the type who others bullied and he tried to do a stunt in his plane. This level of human nature is kept out of Danger UXB for the most part. It is responsible for some of the deaths, and then having funerals conducted in ways that grate on people because too much class distinction is observed.

And far more people die in this series. I did realize that of the 12 we become really attached to in Danger UXB only 4 died and 2 we don’t know. That’s softening too. Almost everyone dies in A Piece of Cake; by the end we have a whole new bunch going up, and we feel they are not going to last much longer either — flying war planes is not a piece of cake. Churchill’s speech about their “sacrifice” registered this. Some of the actors who had individual stories and were grieved over when dead were almost nobodies when they were in it and went on to become stars (though it took time): — Jeremy Northam, Nathaniel Parker are among them. I did think the quiet bitterness of the film superb.

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After watching all 20 episodes of Jack Pulman’s 1972 BBC brilliant, moving and complex, War and Peace, I’m convinced this is another such mini-series, taking its considered quietly tragic vision from Tolstoy’s book.

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Anthony Hopkins as the young Pierre, come to be there as his father dies, stalked Anne Blake by the Countess Drubetskoya, anxious lest the letter which leaves the estate to him is snatched out of his hands (Pulman’s first episode)

Notably powerful were Frank Middlemas as General Kutusov, David Swift as Napoleon.

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Angela Down as Maria Bolkonsky (another of my favorite actresses from this era) – we watch our princpals age, learn, become sober thinking adults and yet ironically remain what they were when they started, learning in effect very little in a deeper way, or unable to change or take in what happened to behave differently

As I love movies so and think watching them can be as reading a book, I’m going to watch alternatively with this (thanks to a friend), the 1966 Russian epic War and Peace by Bondarchuk, and the sadly abbreviated but intelligent and well-shaped Andrew Davies’s 2016 version. We have agreed to read this book over the summer on Trollope19thStudies @ Yahoo (hoping the site remains), starting probably sometime in June and ending September. My project for it is going to include books on Tolstoy’s book, and I’ve gotten myself an older good translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, as revised and edited by Amy Mandelker; as well as a novel focusing on Sofay, Parini’s The Last Station, and Rimvydas Silbajoris’s War and Peace: Tolstoy’s Mirror of the World. I’ll at long last listen to all of David Case’s reading aloud of this book which I gave up on twice because I was trying to listen while my husband was dying of cancer.

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Recently revived as a film, Journey’s End with James Norton (who plays Andrei Bolkonsky in Davies’ War and Peace film)

REGENERATION, Tanya Allen, Jonny Lee Miller, 1997. Tanya Allen and (a favorite actor for me) Jonny Lee Miller (Regeneration, 1997)

I had registered for a Smithsonian course in World War One supposedly centered on a group of books, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, R. C. Sherriff’s frightening play, Journey’s End (I experienced it with Jim – the whole theater is made to feel as if you are in a bomb field), but when I saw how superficially All Quiet on the Western Front was treated (out of three hours, no more than 20 minutes — if that — of discussion) and how the history was presented as top down and about elites quarreling — and how upbeat the presentations I lost heart. So I am going to try Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way (short-listed for the Man Booker), Sebastien Japrisot’s Un long dimache de fiancailles (I’ve got the translation too, by Linda Coverdale and I saw the film with Izzy when it came out) and Pat Barker’s Regeneration on my own (a film here too). When I don’t know: I hope to get to them this summer. I almost hope a proposal for a paper on Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde (which I have prepared an edition of for Valancourt Press, and the editor-publisher is stalling on) to be given at a conference at Chawton Library is rejected, so I can do this.

What can I do better in the world as a reader and writer than read and write about and maybe teach such books?

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A landscape still from Regeneration

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I’ll close on two more poems written during World War One, both by Edward Thomas (1878-1917)

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

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In battle scenes from Davies’s 2016 War and Peace we see the horses dying too

As the Team’s Head-Brass

As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed an angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.
    The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. “When will they take it away?”
“When the war’s over.” So the talk began—
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
“Have you been out?” “No.” “And don’t want
to, perhaps?”
“If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm. I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more. . . . Have many gone
From here?” “Yes.” “Many lost?” “Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.”
“And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.” “Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.” Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

castposing (Medium)
The cast or crew in Danger UXB acting out posing as the Bomb disposal unit posing for photos in a town they are trying to rid of planted landmines – we see how awkward it is to pose as heroes in the expected way — the mini-series has endless nuances of this type in all sorts of situations

Ellen

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